Monday, January 12, 2009

limits and limitations (part II)

Part 2 of my Sunday School lesson. (For Part 1, click here.)

3.) Wrestling with Limits (from “Babies Perfect and Imperfect” by Amy Julia Becker; FT, 11/08)

Becker starts with the birth of her daughter in 12/05 with Down syndrome, hearing someone in the next room shout about their new baby—“She’s perfect!” and thinking her baby was not…

And then, she turns to her faith...

“My faith didn’t help much either. Without even knowing it, my mind held a theological grid, a mental chart of how the universe worked. The only thing that chart told me about Down syndrome…was that it was a manifestation of sin in the world…the entire cosmos was out of whack, bad things happen…”

“And yet even in those early, dark hours of her life, Penny’s presence—her sweet face and tiny hands and warm body—knocked against my grid…I started to understand that Penny was a gift, a precious human being, a child with much to offer.

“I began to reconsider my own theological presuppositions….Was Down syndrome a product of cosmic disorder? What did it mean for Penny, extra chromosome and all, to be created in the image of God? Could Down syndrome have existed in the Garden of Eden? Would Penny have Down syndrome in heaven? In other words, was Down syndrome a part of God’s good creation, or was it evidence of creation gone awry?

Apparently, there's a burgeoning literature on these questions:

“I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. [She lists three books, within the last year, on theological questions surrounding both physical and mental disability.] Together these writers provide a nuanced understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to anticipate a fully redeemed and restored, perfected humanity.

“Before I read these books, and before Penny was in my life, I thought of perfection in largely individualistic and physical terms, as if one day God’s redeeming work would make us all little superheroes…These authors, however, recognize the full and even exemplary humanity of the individuals our culture calls disabled. They recognize the significance, both here and now and for all eternity, of ‘the least of these.’

She then quotes Amos Yong:

The world, as created, is contingent, limited, and finite (as opposed to the divine infinitude). Yet contingency, limitedness, and finitude are not essentially evil, even if the human experience of suffering (and evil) is sometimes derived from these realities.

Becker then takes us back to Genesis 3:

…from the moment of creation, human beings have been needy and dependent creatures. The initial sin of Adam and Eve was to attempt to become like God instead of accepting their inherent limitedness as humans. Rather than trusting God to direct and guide them within their natural limits, they tried to become autonomous individuals….To think of the first humans in terms of dependence, need, and vulnerability makes me wonder whether Adam could have stubbed his toe, or whether he ever asked Eve for a backrub to relieve his sore muscles after a long day’s work. It helps me realize that human limitations didn’t arise when sin entered the world. Limitations existed already. It was brokenness—both within the moral and the natural order—that came with sin.

It seems likely there were sore muscles in Eden
, but not headaches. Perhaps Down syndrome, but probably not Tourette’s syndrome or schizophrenia. Maybe colds, but not cancer.

Then, Becker reflects on Jesus Christ:

…the life, death, and resurrection of Christ provide a portrait of humanity that includes vulnerability, weakness, and powerlessness [see: Phil 2; “the lamb that was slain”].

She quotes Amos Yong...

this] would thus be inclusive rather than exclusive of the human experience of disability.

and then Thomas Reynolds...

His resurrected body continues to bear his scars as a sign of God’s solidarity with humanity…disability indicates not a flawed humanity but a full humanity.

before concluding...

The resurrected Christ bears his scars, but he does not retain his wounds.

Then, there's eschatology and Revelation, the tension between the Kingdom of God as “now and not yet”, and ultimate Redemption (whatever that will look like):

...once we are fully redeemed, our humanity includes limitations and dependence on [God and] one another. We don’t know what those limits will look like. We don’t know whether all of us will have good vision or be able to run marathons without feeling tired or be able to solve quadratic equations.

Again, she quotes Yong:

Thus, the redemption of those with Down syndrome, for example, would consist not in some magical fix of the twenty-first chromosome but in the recognition of their central roles in the communion of saints and in the divine scheme of things.

In other words, to what extent will God remove a given earthly limit or deal with perfectly (and allow us to do so as well?)

She wraps up by reflecting on why/how this matters...

With all that said, we also know that God promises to make us whole. So when the prophet Isaiah writes of a future when the blind will be healed, or when Jesus heals the paralytic, or when the author of Revelation envisions the new heaven and the new earth without any pain, I have to wonder where healing fits in my new understanding of Down syndrome and other disabilities. All three of the recent books imply that when we conceive of healing simply as miraculous cures for abnormal states of being—blindness, deafness, cognitive delays—we miss the point.

For a long time, I was looking for answers to questions that were hardly worth asking, and I was trying to recreate my daughter according to a cultural standard of normalcy rather than according to a biblical understanding of full human life. We are created in the image of God, recipients of divine love and grace, and we bear the responsibility and privilege of extending love into the world here and now, and forever more.

I didn’t conceive of limits—hers or mine—as potentially good: gifts from God that enable each of us to admit our creatureliness, our need for one another, our need for God’s grace…When I think of Penny’s life to come only in terms of being fixed or healed, I miss the point of what it means for God to redeem and heal each and every one of us.

Two and a half years after Penny was born, I don’t think of her as defective, or retarded, or abnormal. I think back to that first evening of her life, when I cringed at the words about the baby next door: “She’s perfect!” I still wouldn’t call Penny perfect. I wouldn’t call any human being, besides Jesus, perfect. I am well aware that Penny needs healing and redemption through Christ, as do I. And Penny’s nature, I hope and pray, will be redeemed through Christ as she becomes the whole person she was created to be. I suspect Penny’s whole person will include three twenty-first chromosomes, but only because any aspect of that extra chromosome causing separation—physical, emotional, relational—will be overcome.


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